20 years under Putin: a timeline

December 26, 2021, will mark 30 years since the Soviet Union was officially dissolved. As such, the Institute of Modern Russia is launching a series of interviews with experts to discuss the post-Soviet decades, identify the key issues of the Russian transition, and their impact on the political system and society today. In the first interview, the head of the Levada Center, Lev Gudkov, spoke about Russia’s conservative revanche, the reproduction of Soviet myths, the stability of authoritarian power, and the “double consciousness” of the Russian people.

 

According to Lev Gudkov, Russia's governance system relies on two key instruments: a purposeful fragmentation of the society as well as the atmosphere of emergency due to an external threat. Photo from open sources.  

 

Part I: Democratization

Part II: Putin

Part III: Totalitarianism

Part IV: The West

Part V: Youth

Part VI: Regime prospects

 

PART I: DEMOCRATIZATION

Olga Khvostunova: You have been researching Russian society for several decades. Looking back at the post-Soviet period, what would you say were the key mistakes and key achievements of the Russian authorities?

Lev Gudkov: You know, I am not a politician or a political scientist, and would not argue in terms of mistakes and achievements. Here, rather, we need to talk about the resonance of three processes that led to the collapse of the USSR. Individually, none of them was catastrophic, but together they destroyed the entire system, although no single political actor specifically sought this result.

OK: What are these processes?

LG: First of all, it was the profound crisis of the planned distribution economy, focused on maintaining the authority of the Soviet state in the world, its status as a militaristic and expansionist superpower. The arms race is often cited as the main cause of disintegration, but I disagree. The second process, which unraveled independently, was the growth of emancipatory national movements in the Soviet republics. Claiming the role of modernizer and cultivating loyalty, the Soviet empire incubated national elites who, over time, began to strive for more power, more resources, and liberation from Moscow’s control. This is crucial. According to our early studies of the elites, the trajectories of future breaks were already visible in 1987-1988. Especially in those republics where the elites took shape under the protection of their native languages—primarily the Baltic states, then the Caucasus, Tatarstan, and others. And the third process was the death of communist ideology, which weakened the regime’s legitimacy based on promises to build a prosperous society. Instead, in the 1980s, we got Chernobyl, preceded by the boycott of the Moscow Olympics. 

OK: Why did Russia fail to follow the democratization path after the collapse of the USSR?

LG: Democracy did not work out because no one seriously thought about it, or prepared for a democratic transition, or created robust political institutions. The maximum that reformers had in mind was the idea of ​​a market transition, which was expected to introduce the rule of law and create democratic structures as well as liberate social groups from the pressure and control of the nomenklatura [holders of influential posts in government and industry]. There was a lack of understanding that social transformation and institutions were necessary; that Russia’s weak, essentially declarative democracy had to be protected. That was the key problem. Also, ​​lustrations were not seriously considered, including in the power structures and the judicial system. Following the Soviet collapse, the KGB—the country’s secret political police, meaning that it acted outside the legal framework—was weakened, but not destroyed. This stands in stark contrast to denazification in Germany or defascistization in Italy, where former members of the totalitarian parties were banned from holding public office. In other words, in Yeltsin’s Russia, the roots of these totalitarian social institutions were left in the soil. All the closed educational bodies of these repressive structures have survived, including the FSB Academy (former Higher School of the KGB), the Academy of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the University of the Prosecutor’s Office, all of which have preserved their resources and potential for reproduction. 

OK: So revanche was inevitable?

LG: The reforms in Russia coincided with a significant drop in living standards. By the mid-1990s, compared to the last year of the Soviet Union, living standards had fallen by about 55 percent. As a result, Russian society, already extremely conservative and downtrodden, became bitterly disappointed with the democratic ideology. The first to suffer were the very forces initially interested in the reforms—the technical intelligentsia as well as the intelligentsia in a broad sense, including the state bureaucracy. Industries collapsed because, for the most part, their products were not needed outside the framework of a directive planned economy. Their employees suddenly became superfluous. Social groups, such as the working class, which had been employed primarily in military production to maintain the Soviet empire and had served as its mainstay, were basically thrown out onto the street. Reformers and the population as a whole were primarily driven by the goals of eliminating the consumer deficit and transitioning to a market economy. The question of the morality and legality of the USSR as a totalitarian state was not even raised, and so the Soviet communist system’s criminal nature—or rather the human price of communism or socialism, whatever you call it—was not recognized. The 1992 trial of the Communist Party was an inglorious failure. But back then, no one even considered developing protective mechanisms against the possible regeneration of totalitarian institutions. Such thought never even occurred. Everyone hoped for an authoritarian “democratic” leader—a master, really—who would lead the revolution from above and would neutralize and suppress the resistance of the communists and conservatives. 

OK: Who else was interested in democratic reform?

LG: According to our research, the mid-level bureaucracy was most interested in Gorbachev’s perestroika. Well, in the late Soviet period, people were generally dissatisfied with the eternal deficit, poverty, hopelessness, but none of that translated into organizational forms or movements of any kind. In 1950-1952, during the terror and mass repressions of late Stalinism, it would take only three years for a party member to reach a high nomenklatura position—say, secretary of a district committee or secretary of the party committee at a large factory. Due to the constant purges and personnel turnover, the bureaucracy enjoyed great career opportunities, because the razor of repression was relentlessly shaving off the upper layers. After Stalin’s death, repressions against party leadership were banned. But as a result, by the late Brezhnev era, the time needed to reach the same nomenklatura positions spiked to 18-21 years. Thus, the channels of vertical mobility were inhibited, creating the strongest tensions within the middle bureaucracy. And who were they? That same intelligentsia, civil servants, engineers, journalists. Also, keep in mind that under Khrushchev, the Soviet leadership realized that parity between the USSR and the United States could be achieved only through innovation and investment in R&D. By 1963, investments in education and science reached the highest level in the entire Soviet and post-Soviet period—more than 6 percent of GDP (now they are less than 2 percent). Accelerated education and training, and accelerated growth created a relative overproduction of people with higher education but very limited prospects. If you remember the late Soviet movies, such as “Flights in Dreams and in Reality” and “The Train Stopped,” they all convey this dead-end atmosphere of hopelessness.

This is crucial for understanding what happened next, because it was this middle bureaucracy that supported the reforms and set up the framework for change, acting as the driving force for democratization. But as soon as Gorbachev’s cleansing of the gerontocratic power system was over and the channels of mobility reopened, the middle bureaucracy felt that its needs were satisfied, so its “revolutionary spirit”—although I do not think this process was a revolution—evaporated. As a result, the new government’s legitimacy sharply weakened. Some reformers began to search for a national idea, flirting with conservative ideology and the Church. Losing mass support, the Yeltsin leadership looked for new sources of authority, legitimacy, and self-preservation, and soon found them within the power structures, the KGB, and the army. During the First Chechen War, the influence of the military and the Chekists [security services] increased dramatically. And in the 1996 presidential elections, for the first time, the government employed administrative resources, political technologies, and manipulations to ensure the desired electoral outcome. Furthermore, these developments led to the reformers’ removal from power and the strengthening of conservative cadres, such as Soviet functionary Viktor Chernomyrdin or former director of the Foreign Intelligence Service Yevgeny Primakov. Overall, only an amorphous group of better educated people, the so-called “social elite,” who had some cultural capital and a slightly broader perspective on life, remained interested in the reforms. As was the growing business class that needed a legal state... But even among these groups, the level of understanding and sense of responsibility for what had to be done was very narrow. And remains so today.

 

PART II: PUTIN

OK: Why did Yeltsin’s circle choose Putin as his successor?

LG: They searched for successors among various security structures. At the time, Russian society was disappointed, dissatisfied, and passive. When in the second half of the 1990s the economy began to recover and the hardships seemed finally over, the 1998 financial crisis plunged the population into such a depression that people were ready to accept any leader who would promise to fulfill two tasks—bring the country out of the crisis and restore its status as a great power. Having considered a few candidates, Yeltsin’s entourage, the so-called “Family,” settled on Putin, whom they thought to be the safest choice: a mediocre, but manageable official—easy to control. At first, he was indeed all that; he lacked programs and ideas of his own. But precisely because of this lacking, Putin sensed the dominant attitudes of the masses. He simply stepped into the frame of mass expectations, played along, and garnered mass support by riding the wave of the public disorientation, frustration, resentment, and diffused aggression. As a result, the country’s leadership was taken hostage by the special services. If you dance with the devil, remember that he calls the tune. At the first sign of criticism, starting with the Kursk submarine disaster followed by the Dubrovka and Beslan hostage crises, Putin sensed a threat from autonomous forces and groups in Russian society and began to levy pressure on them—first, on independent media, then on oligarchs. The centralization of power and the restoration of repressive structures began. But society, being fragmented and disoriented, did not resist this. Perhaps this process was not inevitable, but the general trajectory was clear. 

OK: What could have been done?

LG: We had to fight. A complete judicial reform had to be implemented; the judicial system had to be taken out from presidential control. The role of parliament, which was drastically weakened by the 1993 Constitution, had to be strengthened. Political pluralism had to be preserved—instead, by 2000, it was destroyed. Everyone was waiting for the reforms to continue; different groups projected their expectations, hopes, and interests onto Putin, waiting for him to do “great things.” In the meantime, centralization intensified, power structures expanded, press freedom was eliminated—all in the interest of the Putin regime. A rift between the general public and the holders of knowledge emerged, resulting in the latter losing their good standing with the masses. The Kremlin began to cultivate traditionalism as a source of its legitimacy. Society took a turn to primitivity, and some underlying, seemingly bygone layers of culture began to surge, although, to be fair, this process had been initiated under Yeltsin by his so-called “democratic” consultants. I would say that the servility of the elite was yet another crucial reason why revanche succeeded. The bureaucracy benefited from it the most, not to mention the new Kremlin entourage—new oligarchs with background in the security services. And I must say that the merging of financial flows and the political police is indeed an extraordinary phenomenon that has not been appreciated by political scientists at all. The combination of the new redistribution of property with a rather archaic ideology is a unique feature of Putin’s regime. 

OK: There is an opinion that the Putin regime has no ideology.

LG: I disagree. This opinion testifies to the narrow views of our experts and analysts. Of course, there exists a system of ideas that justify the current political order and determine the nature of mass obedience to the authorities. But this configuration of ideologemes, myths, and demagogy is not recognized as an ideology, because it is thoughtlessly modeled after the Soviet ideology, which was much more elaborate, dogmatic, schematic, and total. Today’s Russia has the ideology of state paternalism and patriotism that appeals to and draws legitimation from the past, with its military valor, imperial achievements, Soviet industrialization, etc. Any competent sociologist will tell you that appeals to the past, the glorification of militarism and imperial colonization serve to legitimize centralization of power and elimination of pluralism. If all the achievements are in the past, then, following this logic, all today’s group interests and the ideas diversity become illegitimate. There is no need for representative or legal institutions. Civil society is perceived first as an opponent, then as an enemy of sovereign power. 

OK: Where do you see the servility of the elite?

LG: The elite—and I mean public intellectuals and the scientific elite, but not business or security officials—turned out to be incompetent, being both externally and internally dependent on the authorities and on the leadership of universities and academies. Even if it is engaged in research and not only in propaganda, this elite is internally subordinated to the needs of superiors who define its line of work. This elite lacks cognitive interests, so it adapts to what it believes is accepted in the world, or in the West, and follows the yesteryear intellectual fashion snooped in Europe or the United States. Our elite is fundamentally imitative. Its claims to intellectual authority are based on flashy knowledge of some Western scholarship, including research in transitology, which it then uses to maintain the illusion of the country’s moving towards a “bright future.” And the current regime is quite happy with this. But the foundation of such an intellectual authority lacks a sober analysis of the country’s state of affairs, of the regime’s nature, and the reasons for public complacency. The elite is eager to demonstrate its readiness to provide the authorities with advice and political prescriptions. Earlier, it would advise how to get from point A (“authoritarianism”) to point D (“democracy”); today, how to optimize the management of the economy, health care, patriotic education, etc. The elite does not study Russian society, nor does it search for group interests to rely on and ensure solidarity. This is a servile readiness to provide advice to the authorities, but, as the past 20 years have shown, the Kremlin did not even need it. Servility has become widespread across all Russian universities. A recent report by DOXA and the investigative media outlet Proekt that 92 percent of the heads of the top 100 universities are associated with the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. Their scientific potential is zero, but they hold means of control over education, socialization, and teaching. These examples capture the logic of restoration of totalitarian institutions perfectly.

 

PART III: TOTALITARIANISM

OK: What do you mean by totalitarian in this case?

LG: When people say “totalitarianism,” they usually refer to the Gulag, mass terror, etc. This is an important part of the totalitarian paradigm, but by no means exhaustive or definitive—there are other, non-totalitarian forms of exterminating humans. The concept of totalitarianism, which developed in the 1920s and 1930s, is based on a different idea: the state’s encroachment into spheres that were not previously its areas of competence, such as private life, morality, religion, science, education, sport. Instead of differentiation, isolation, autonomy of various social groups, instead of a complex system of interconnections and communications, a totalitarian state implies purposeful centralized control, coercion, and indoctrination of the population. Russia under Putin may not have been very successful in moving towards totalitarianism, but it is moving there still. We see how the space of freedom, culture, enlightenment, religion, morality, science is shrinking, not to mention the complete disappearance of politics as an institutional realm.

OK: Why is Russia returning to totalitarian institutions?

LG: First of all, because the nature of the Soviet system was not properly processed and realized; no basis for its condemnation emerged on the moral, legal, and state level. Russia’s political culture is extremely inertial; it retains elements of the Stalin era and even earlier times—imperialism, serfdom. If we compare Russia with other post-Soviet countries, we will see that democratic transition was successful only where several crucial factors were in place: the memory of national statehood, as in Poland or the Baltic States; surviving remnants of civil society and institutional structures, such as the Church, the Flying University [an educational activist group in Warsaw] or elements of folklore societies; and a long tradition or practice of resistance. Starting in 1956, Poland’s resistance movement grew to realize that coups d’état and ideas of revolution or radical change are illusory in the absence of societal forces interested in new institutions. Institutions need to be created, representation of diverse public interests, movements, and parties needs to be achieved. This means that you have to seek opportunities for a compromise with the authorities, accounting for the views and needs of a people that is alien to democracy and liberalism, with a limited understanding of the ongoing processes. This also means that you need to learn how to conduct a dialogue instead of aiming at destroying the enemy. Culture requires the preservation of pluralism in society and the political system, which is more important than reforms from above and declarations of democracy and law. Russia lacked such traditions, and we quickly became in thrall to illusions—first, offered by the authoritarian democrat Yeltsin and his reformers, who acted with authoritarian methods, and then by Putin with his ideas of “restoration” and “raising Russia from its knees.”

OK: Levada polls show that last year 75 percent of Russians believed that the Soviet era was the best time in Russian history. Could it be that nostalgia is the reason for the conservative revanche?

LG: Well, what we observe is not nostalgia per se, not what a forced emigrant feels about their abandoned homeland. These are different experiences and ideologemes. The idealization of Soviet life and Soviet times in Russian society is a condition for criticizing the present. People have no other means to evaluate and articulate their dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs and the regime’s policies. This is not even new; I remember well Stalin’s portraits on truck windshields at the end of the Brezhnev era. The ideas of order, lost justice, equality, and the perfect life—this phantom utopia—are all that people can refer to when criticizing the present with its atmosphere of suppressed freedom of speech, censorship, and blaring propaganda. Soviet ideological slogans get reborn in the mass consciousness, but are mistaken for a reality that never existed. Soviet myths about free public healthcare, free education, guaranteed jobs, low housing costs, trade union vouchers, good pensions are quite persistent. When a market economy was introduced to Russia, the country’s impoverished population was not given any idea of the future or development goal. The reformers were later discredited, the liberals and the very concept of democracy vilified, and people had no other option but appeal to the past as an ideal. This coincided with the general traditionalist trend, the perception that our life, our country’s greatness were in the past, so they must be restored. This feeling prevailed over the need to change the situation. Over the past 25 years, 55-60 percent of respondents in our polls have repeatedly said that the reforms made them feel like losers, that it would be better if nothing had changed during perestroika. Soviet mythology has thus become a tool for interpreting reality.

OK: And the Kremlin, it seems, just took the lead in this process?

LG: That’s right. I have said many times before that the current propaganda does not create new ideas or images of reality. Instead, it employs common myths of the late Soviet era—the Brezhnev time or even earlier—interpreting them in the language of modern processes, phenomena, and relations. Therefore, today, the Kremlin justifies Russian aggression by invoking the model of Stalin’s aggression against Finland or his annexation of the Baltic States—due to alleged threats from the other side.

 

PART IV: THE WEST

OK: In one of your recent interviews with Znak.com, you compared Russians’ attitude towards the West in the early 1990s with the present, and the difference is enormous. Why have attitudes deteriorated so radically?

LG: The rise of anti-Westernism is a very important trend. Anti-Western sentiments suppress the very idea of ​​reforms and change, sterilize or destroy the image of the future and the possibility of consolidated action to change the system of power. 

OK: Where does Russia’s claim to be a great power come from today? Is this another attribute of the Soviet or, perhaps, Russian Empire?

LG: An important question. Unlike Europe, Russian society was largely created by the state for its own purposes—in response to the need for technological modernization and the creation of an army, navy, and bureaucratic government. Therefore, the idea of ​​an autonomous society is basically absent in Russian political culture. The idea of an empire, on the other hand, implies ​​expansion—seizure of vast territories and projection of strength—which forms the basis of an individual’s self-respect and dignity and people’s collective pride, but only as subjects of a great power. Under chronic poverty, especially during deepening crises and mass hopelessness, this feeling of greatness serves as a compensatory mechanism for lifting the chronic feeling of humiliation, dependence, poverty, and shame for one’s existence—all these are typical features of a society that is catching up with modernization. There is no other foundation for collective pride in Russia. And if it does arise, it usually happens on the margins, and such social groups are immediately turned into dissidents. The masses continue to live by the idea of state greatness and associated conspiracy theories, blaming poverty and criticism on rampant Russophobia and Western hostility. It is ironic that Russian society perceives the West as a utopia, the embodiment of ideals and values, yet also fears and resents the West. This “double consciousness”—idealization of the West and fear of it—is a crucial mental construct that emerged long ago, even before Soviet times.

OK: Are these the Russian Empire’s archetypes?

LG: Yes, they date back to the 19th century, the very beginning of Russian modernization. But it is important to understand that these are not mechanisms of identification; they have nothing to do with ideological support for imperial power. These are distinct phenomena. Today, Russian society is not interested in expansion or seizure of new territories, even though they felt different in Soviet times. But the public is interested in preserving—or reviving—Russia’s status as a superpower to resist Western influence, but not to fight or make sacrifices. Nor does the society want to resist the regime’s policies. Again we see an ambivalent attitude: on the one hand, euphoria over the annexation of Crimea; on the other, refusal to bear responsibility for it, as well as for other adventures of the state, including the mass repressions and terror of the Soviet era. There is no sense of guilt for participating in such crimes—a crucial gap in public consciousness. 

OK: In your research, have you noticed any other gaps or breaks in the minds of Russians over the past 30 years?

LG: Our early polls did show a growing awareness of a historical impasse, an impending catastrophe combined with collective masochism, feelings that “we are the worst, a nation of slaves.” The share of such responses in 1989-1992 increased from 7 percent to 54 percent. This dark consciousness became an extremely important factor during the Soviet collapse. The transition was inevitable, but people did not really understand where to go. If not along the path of China, then there was only one option—the West; only Russians had an idealized view of the West. People wanted to “live like in normal countries.” A friend of mine, the French sociologist and historian Alexis Berelovich, long ago called this longing the “utopia of normality.” For people raised in a scarcity economy, Western life—based on what they saw in movies or read in books—looked like the ideal they strived for. People wanted to have a high consumption level and legal protection from arbitrary rule. At that time, Russian society showed no tangible anti-Western sentiments. About 40-45 percent believed that Russia should join NATO, 50 percent hoped that it would integrate with the European community. But since the mid-1990s, when the reforms showed their negative side, and people still could not grasp what democracy is and how it works, public demand grew for an authoritarian leader who would put things in order with an iron fist and bring back at least a portion of our former lives. 

OK: In other words, the initially unrealistic expectations of democracy and the West combined with disappointment over reforms led to a democratic rollback?

LG: Something like that. I just would not criticize the reformers—they did what they could in difficult circumstances. With the advent of Putin’s rule, the country began to regenerate the power structures, repressive apparatus, and with them the very spirit of imperialism and Sovietness. This development was especially noticeable in the army. After two defeats in Chechnya, ideas of betrayal and a stab-in-the-back conspiracy against Russia spread among the military. Around 2002, state control over the mass media had already been established, and these ideas were replicated and propagated to the population. Starting from 2004-2005, our polls began to record growth in anti-Western sentiments, the emergence of the image of an enemy, and the idea that Russia is encircled by enemies. Throughout Putin’s rule, these sentiments have stabilized at the level of 78-83 percent, although recently there has been a slight decline in the “enemies” factor. This totalitarian representation of the external world is institutionally reproduced in schools. Today, the entire school curriculum in fundamental issues repeats the Soviet teaching system—both ideologically and substantively.

 

PART V: YOUTH

OK: How receptive are young people to such sentiments? Studies of young people show different trends: on the one hand, the replication of Soviet consciousness continues, including even linguistic clichés, and on the other, independence, lack of fear, and other optimistic tendencies are observed. What do you see in your surveys?

LG: Indeed, we had a series of surveys focusing on Russian youth, including two large studies in 2018 and 2020. By youth, we mean the Putin generation of the last twenty years—Russians aged 18-35. Young people are currently at the center of various forces’ attention. Liberals and oppositionists are betting on young people because, in their opinion, they have not known Soviet life and can become beacons of change. The Kremlin is worried that young people are evading its influence, and so it is taking measures to strengthen control through patriotic education and imposition of various punishments, such as fines, expulsion from university, etc. What do we actually see? The youth of today is markedly different from previous generations. Young people have new communication practices, new behavioral models, a more pronounced orientation towards the West, a more noticeable intolerance of violence. On the other hand, the nature of their collective ideas—Russia as a great power, anti-Westernism, lack of alternative to Putin—is almost indistinguishable from older generations, because state institutions ensure this consistency. Such is the purpose of the school, the army, the workplace, such is the goal of the propaganda system, against which people are basically powerless. Since there is no trustworthy elite that could give an independent evaluation of what is happening, people by themselves cannot comprehend it or come up with their own interpretations or set new development goals. Therefore, young people reproduce the old Soviet clichés. This is another vital, albeit intricate process. We see how, for example, recognition of Stalin’s authority and greatness is growing, along with the good standing of the army, the FSB, and the authoritarian government itself.

OK: Do you see absence of fear among the youth?

LG: This is a difficult question. Russian youth today have all the advantages over older people, and this endows them with some confidence and optimism. That is urban youth, I must stipulate, because rural areas are being depopulated, pushing young people to the cities. Still, we see fear of war, harsher political regime, return to mass repressions, defenselessness in the face of the police or government officials, as well as fear of humiliation and loss of dignity. All these social affects have grown greatly over the past year.

OK: What are the advantages that the youth have?

LG: We have a non-typical situation on the labor market, which is sharply different from Western economies. The most compelling research on these issues comes from Vladimir Gimpelson [director of the Higher School of Economics’ Center for Labor Studies]. The peak of salaries in Russia today falls on the group aged about 32-35, while in Western countries the peak occurs closer to retirement age, when a person reaches a higher qualification and status. Why is that? Because in the Russian economy, leaving aside commodities, the fastest growth is shown by the service sector, trade, and IT. Manufacturing industries are rapidly shrinking: in the space of 30 years, their share in the economy fell from 32-33 percent to the current 19 percent. Young people learn new technologies faster and thus have more job opportunities. In private life, too, we see significant changes, especially in terms of ​​consumption. Consumption has become the main sphere of values, the subject of value orientations, a marker of social status, authority, and recognition. Not values—ethical, religious, or other—but the level of consumption. With regard to young people, this leads to greater contentment, but at the same time, we still see some growing dissatisfaction with the strengthening of state control. It has been especially noticeable during the pandemic year, which hit the service sector the most. Russian young people are more flexible and seemingly de-ideologized, given that they are oriented primarily towards consumption, but the routine reproduction of old ideologies and myths continues to work, blocking the possibilities of political and social development. All this creates an atmosphere of general stagnation.

OK: Do young people also have “double consciousness”?

LG: Of course. Doublethink is the main feature of Russian political culture, along with distance from power, an orientation towards private life, family, entertainment, consumption, but not towards changing living conditions or institutions, plus a lack of responsibility for the state of affairs in the country.

 

PART VI: REGIME PROSPECTS

OK: You said a little earlier that you do not think that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a revolutionary process. What was it then, in your opinion?

LG: Dissolution in the exact sense of the word.

OK: Just a disintegration of the previous system?

LG: Yes, disintegration as a result of the institutional failure in a complete impasse. I will also point to the interesting, albeit overlooked fact that even the structures designed to protect the Soviet regime—the KGB, the army—turned out to be unfit to do so. Why? Because awareness of the dead end and the impossibility of continuing to live like that captured everyone. No one was interested in defending the Soviet Union. The problems began later, but not at the time of the collapse. Yeltsin’s supporters happened to be much more motivated and stubborn, with more resources than their opponents at the time.

OK: Some experts believe that the collapse of the USSR is still ongoing. Do you think there are centrifugal forces inside Russia? Is there a potential for further disintegration?

LG: The USSR is still disintegrating, but in a different form—through the erosion of great-power attitudes. The younger generation is less inclined to preserve the greatness of the state. The former Soviet republics will never come back to Russia, this is out of the question. Is there potential for further separatism? In principle, yes: there are separatist movements in the North Caucasus, to a lesser extent in Tatarstan, but they are mainly used by the local authorities as a tool to blackmail the center. The very idea of ​​further disintegration is possible, but the question remains, who will take the seceded territories and how viable would they be? For the Caucasus, this prospect is at least foreseeable, and therefore the Kremlin is making serious efforts to retain these territories at any cost, buying their loyalty, capturing new ones, such as South Ossetia or Abkhazia. The Russian Far East, which gravitates towards the Asia-Pacific region, theoretically could also exist separately, if someone was interested in secession. There are no such forces yet. Nevertheless, the economic ties between the center and the Far East are weakening, the space between them is blurring. In fact, an emptiness is emerging in Eastern Siberia, and we can seriously talk about the existence of some kind of life there only within a radius of about 200 km along the Trans-Siberian Railway. Hypothetically, the potential for disintegration exists, but local communities have too little power for self-organization, while the center’s pressure, which neutralizes such movements, is too great. So far, the unity of the empire in Russia is maintained by three institutions: the school, the army, and the police.

OK: Schools got into good company… How do you assess the protest potential in Russia?

LG: There is potential for protest because the level of public irritation and discontent is quite high. We observe a cyclical development of protests: when there is a specific reason, when there are leaders, and the situation seems unbearable for some reason, local upheavals emerge. Today, the protest is fleeing the capital for the periphery, where the economic situation is much worse and where the authorities are extremely harsh in suppressing any form of self-organization. The entire technology of state domination essentially rests on the severing of horizontal ties and solidarities between different social groups. Society is increasingly fragmenting, while the atmosphere of emergency and external threat is being escalated. The Kremlin’s entire control system is based on these two tools.

OK: Is there a horizon for the current regime’s viability? The configuration of Russian state power, as you explain it, suggests that this regime can last for a very long time.

LG: How would we establish such a horizon? 

OK: Some experts are guided by Putin’s life span.

LG: Well, we can assume that by the early 2030s, the regime’s resources, even under the current stagnation, will have run out. The model of secondary totalitarianism, where the state lives at the expense of high commodities prices and a redistributive economy, will not only become ineffective in the context of a global technological revolution, but will cause conflicts and crises. With Putin or after Putin, Russia will face major changes. A power struggle will break out between different forces, but the outcome remains uncertain, because society, as I said, is passive. Much will depend on what forces are involved in the struggle. A version of the late 1980s is possible, when Gorbachev, in his fight against the gerontocracy, began to appeal to society, talk about perestroika, glasnost, and democracy. But also possible is the arrival of another dictator, who will try to freeze the country again. In terms of prospects, the crucial factor is that we are in stagnation, and this state has no internal exit mechanisms. 

OK: Should there be an external mechanism?

LG: Yes. For example, a crisis may give rise to a search for some alternative solutions to overcome stagnation. And the stagnation itself...

OK: ... can continue for a long time by inertia.

LG: As long as oil prices remain high, or until Russia embarks on another military adventure, which, in my opinion, will cause a strong negative reaction from society and undermine the regime’s approval, people can remain relatively happy. The early 2000s consumer boom allowed them to accumulate some reserves of patience and illusion. Standards of living improved, and although they have been declining recently, people continue to live with these hopes.

 

Other interviews from the series:

• Vladimir Gelman: “Russia’s leadership is increasingly facing problems of succession and lack of perspective”

• Sergei Guriev: “We may already be seeing Russia’s return to the repressive dictatorship of the 20th century”

• Ivan Kurilla: “Russia and the U.S. have defined themselves through opposing each other for almost a hundred years”

The rise and fall of Sputnik V

Our newsletter delivers a digest of analytical articles and op-eds published on our website, along with the latest updates on the IMR activities on a monthly basis.